By all accounts, last year’s 22-5 record with trips to the Essex County and North 2, Group 3 tournament finals was a rousing success for the Nutley softball team.
A year later, merely being in contention isn’t enough.
With seven starters, including one of the state’s top pitchers in Fallyn Stoeckel back, this Maroon Raiders squad has more ambitious goals.
“Last year we had a good group with potential, but I don’t know if I would have told you on Day 1 that’s where we would be. Getting to those finals were quite an accomplishment for us,” veteran head coach Luann Zullo said. “But I think at this point, getting there isn’t what we’re looking for this year because we’ve made it there and they know we can make it there. Now we have to take that next step.
“This year we have plans. We want to get things done,” she said.
Thus far, Nutley looks every bit the part of a team capable of winning its first sectional title since 2015, winning eight of its first 11 games of the season, while playing in one the state’s best divisions. The most recent of those wins, a 1-0 victory over Cranford at the Black & Gold Invitational, in a rematch of last year’s sectional final. One week earlier, the Maroon Raiders overcame deficits in the seventh and eighth innings to defeat Morris Knolls at Ivy Hill Park.
The only setbacks thus far were two against Livingston, last year’s Group 4 champion who is currently ranked No. 5 in the state by NJ.com and once to Mount St. Dominic, currently ranked No. 4.
“Would we like to go out and win every single game? Absolutely,” Zullo said. “Is it tough walking off the field and not having a higher number? Yes, but those games make us better. Those teams make us better.”
While Stoeckel, who has already racked up more than 110 strikeouts with a 2.09 ERA gets most of the attention, she is hardly alone on the field. In fact, Zullo sees a group where everyone is capable of stepping up when their number is called.
“We know that each and every day we want to do the best that we can and support our teammates,” said Zullo. “One day it might be you, the next day it might be the person standing next to you. And you have to know that if today’s not your day, you have eight other people on that field that have your back.”
Among them is Sydney Hess, a four-year starter at catcher, and another four-year mainstay in centerfielder Lia DeMaio, who is one of the state’s better defenders at the position.
Flanking DeMaio in the outfield are juniors Gianna Lembo in right, a converted first baseman, and Robin Niland in left. Lembo singled home Niland for the only run in Saturday’s win and according to Zullo are two of her most improved players.
Lembo’s move to the outfield, opened up first base for freshman Isabella Thompson, who has hit the ground running. Another freshman, Gabriella Mariano, is starting at shortstop. Junior Mia DiPiano returns at second base and senior Nikki Cicchetti is back at third base.
Another freshman, Skyle Stoeckel is a utility player and is capable of filling in everywhere on the diamond, including in the circle. Sienna Kantor and Megan Spina are two other capable contributors off the bench.
“We have a very nice mix of veterans and new people,” Zullo said. “Last year, this team battled back numerous times so they never really feel like they’re out of it and that’s a good thing. It’s a little tough on my heart, but we never feel we’re out of it and we battle.”
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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)